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The Real Knee-Offenders? It’s the Airlines!

In the course of just over one week, three U.S. flights were diverted due to altercations between those who would recline their seats and those who took exception to having their scant personal space further diminished. Let’s call them the recliners and the reclinees.

The fights sparked shrill debates in the major media, in the blogosphere, around the company water cooler, everywhere.

The recliners and their supporters rest their case on their right, bought and paid for with their tickets, to take advantage of whatever few comfort-enhancing features their coach seats come with.

The reclinees and their sympathizers counter that the pushed-back seatbacks constitute an unreasonable degradation of what precious little comfort can be had in coach class.

Then there’s the side argument regarding Knee Defender, the clever device that, clipped to a seat tray, locks a seatback in the full upright position. Should the devices be banned, as they are by some airlines, or sold at the boarding gate?

So many raised voices, so much finger-pointing, so much anger.

And most of it is misdirected.

The Seat-Recline Debate, Refocused

The root cause of the problem lies squarely in three measures, which taken in combination are the key determinants of coach-class comfort, which in turn is either the cause or cure for air rage:

  • Seat pitch, the industry measure of legroom, averages 30 – 31 inches, down 10 percent from a decade ago.
  • The width of a typical coach-class seat is 17 inches, 18 inches if you’re lucky.
  • And U.S. commercial aircraft are flying more than 80 percent full year-round.

All of these parameters are within the control of the airlines. But in the interests of operating efficiency and profitability, the airlines have chosen to push their customers beyond the brink of tolerable discomfort, packing as many flyers as possible into the smallest possible space.

Which means that the cause of the recent wave of unpleasantness, the real culprit, is not the recliners or the reclinees. It’s the airlines themselves.

More legroom. More elbow room. Less-packed cabins. Adjustments to any one or more of these would relieve some of the pressure in what has become an environment ripe for outbreaks of rage and incivility.

Until that happens, there will be a high level of discomfort. There will be flare-ups. There will be flight diversions.

In the meantime, let’s keep the focus on the problem’s real perpetrators: It’s the airlines, not their customers.

Reader Reality Check

How do you deal with the issue of reclining seats? How should the airlines deal with it?

This article originally appeared on

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